ROSTOV-ON-DON – Nacer Chadli scored a stunning injury-time winnner as Belgium fought back from 2-0 down to defeat Japan 3-2 and advance to a World Cup quarter-final showdown with Brazil here Monday.
Chadli's superbly worked goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time was the final act of an epic last-16 battle that saw Belgium become the first team in 48 years to successfully overturn a 2-0 deficit in a World Cup knockout game.
The Red Devils will face five-time champions Brazil in Kazan on Friday after scoring three second-half goals without reply to break Japan's dogged resistance.
Goals by Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui in four devastating minutes had put Japan 2-0 up early in the second half to leave Belgium reeling.
However, the Red Devils responded with quick goals of their own as Jan Vertonghen, at fault for Haraguchi's goal, and Marouane Fellaini both scored headers before Chadli's dramatic winner in Rostov.
Relieved Belgium manager Roberto Martinez saluted his side's resolve.
“No negatives today, it was about getting through,” Martinez said. “It is a day to be very proud of these players.
“Keep believing in Belgium. In the World Cup you want to be perfect but it's about getting through, it's about winning.”
Having also exited the last 16 in both 2002 and 2010, Japan suffered knock-out stage heartbreak for the third time.
From the start, the Blue Samurai's tactics were clear - harass and hurry their opponents every time they were on the ball, while living off scraps.
It almost paid off.
A long-range shot from Eden Hazard was Belgium's brightest chance in the first 45 minutes as Japan kept close tabs on Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku.
After a goalless first-half, the game exploded into life after the break.
Japan took the lead when they won possession deep in their own half.
The ball was moved downfield quickly and when Vertonghen failed to intercept the final pass, Haraguchi sprinted clear.
He placed his shot just past Thibaut Courtois' despairing glove and inside the far post on 48 minutes to delight Japanese fans.
Falling behind rattled the Belgians as Hazard clattered the post moments later.
Japan doubled their lead on 52 minutes when Inui unleashed a thunderbolt shot off his right boot which flew past the despairing Courtois.
Desperate for a goal to get them back in the game, Lukaku headed wide with an hour approaching.
Confidence grew in the Japanese ranks with attacking midfielder Kagawa calling the shots.
With 25 minutes left, Martinez swapped Fellaini and Chadli for Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco, which sparked the Belgium response.
Vertonghen made amends for his mistake in the build-up to Japan's opening goal when his speculative header from out wide looped over Eiji Kawashima's grasp on 69 minutes.
Then Belgium drew level when Hazard's pin-point ball found Fellaini in the middle and the Manchester United midfielder unleashed an unstoppable header on 74 minutes.
It was end-to-end stuff for the final quarter of an hour.
Elation for Belgium, but utter heartbreak for #JPN
Thank you for contributing so much to a #WorldCup classic and for everything you've added to Russia 2018, Japan. #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/rtd3xUrEyj
As his defence started to tire, goalkeeper Kawashima kept Japan in the game his side with two saves in quick succession to deny Chadli and Lukaku.
At the other end, Courtois saved Keisuke Honda's wickedly curling free shot which led to the winning goal.
The Belgium goalkeeper cleared the ball, Kevin de Bruyne spotted Thomas Meunier unmarked out wide and the Paris Saint-Germain winger whipped in a superb cross.
Lukaku, who was marked, left it for Chadli to tap home and cap Belgium's stunning win right before the final whistle.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)